FreeAgent simplifies small business accounting like no other

Dennis Howlett recently announced a new accounting web app called FreeAgent, which looks pretty cool and seems to be approaching an age-old problem in a new way:

All the well known products and services are geared towards people who already understand the fundamentals of book-keeping. Sage, Intuit and others will argue they’ve simplified the user interface and that much of the grind of double entry has been removed. I agree. But the basic design problem remains.

From the FreeAgent Central website:

FreeAgent is an online money management tool intended for small, UK-based service businesses of 1-3 employees. This will include most kinds of freelancers, contractors and consultants. … FreeAgent will probably not be for you if you tend to sell lots of products rather than services, hold materials and stock, or handle cash as part of your business.

Sounds promising. I took the tour to learn more, and a few things stood out. First, the software allows users to upload their bank data file, provide explanations for their transactions and the software will ‘learn’ for the next time what certain transactions are. That’s pretty slick. I love software that learns me, and no doubt so will business owners, since it will allow them to focus on growing their business.

Second was the focus on taxes. For now, the service is focusing on the UK market, but plans are afoot to expand into other markets. Tax is going to be the most difficult part of this transition. FreeAgent will help business owners self assess their income tax and VAT, as well as other corporate taxes if they’re operating as a limited company. This is a key addition of value for small business owners, as it will allow them to decrease their compliance costs.

The service is still in Beta at the moment, and accounts are available for free for the time being. They are going through some hiccups however, as I was unable to log in once I’d created my Beta account, and initially it gave me a 500 error when I signed up. But that’s what Beta is for – working out the kinks.

I’ll have a full review once I get set up and check out all the features firsthand, including screen shots. I also hope to help wherever I can with their Canadian translation!


Twitter for accounting professionals?

Dennis wrote a post a few days ago about Twitter within “a business context” entitled “The pain of disruption“:

I want to DO something with Twitter. The more I think about what Twitter might deliver, the more scary it becomes. Twitter challenges my ingrained notions of how services and value are delivered.

In case you haven’t heard of Twitter, it is basically like group instant messaging. You create your own account and start making small (144 characters is the max) posts about what you’re doing or thinking about. Other Twitterers “follow” you and receive your postings on their home page.

For whatever reason the post really ignited something within me and I found myself commenting right away, although with an idea that sort of just fell out of my brain half-baked:

Off the top of my head, how about Twitter channels for large, distributed groups working together (I’m thinking specifically of audit teams but there are obviously other applications) to aid communication. Group IM seems useful as long as it can be secured for sensitive business.

I continued to ruminate on the issue and hoped some more ideas could be generated.

How about for Twitter for an entire accounting firm office? I could throw out a question to the entire firm, like “Does anyone have a GST reconciliation schedule template handy?” or “Why is the capital gains exemption limited to only qualified small business corporation shares?”

Being able to ask those sorts of questions is helpful since I’m rarely in the office unless it’s busy season (and even then it’s just evenings and weekends). Being able to ask my more senior colleagues technical questions when I’m in the field would be great, but not too different from using email. The difference I guess would be not having to enter all their addresses.

How about using Twitter to communicate with clients? This has some possibilities as well. Being able to communicate with clients about new accounting standards coming into effect, or relevant changes to tax law would improve client service and provide timely updates that blows the current model away.

Any other ideas for using Twitter within a business context or specifically for accountants?


Google improves Analytics and now I’m in on it!

This weekend was the first long weekend of the summer here in Canada. On Fridays before long weekends at my firm we get the afternoons off, so around 1pm everyone clears out and gets an early start on the rest of the cubicle dwellers around the Greater Toronto Area.

I took the opportunity to do a little shopping for a new mouse at Future Shop. My old mouse had for whatever reason stopeped functioning properly. For the rcord, Microsoft mice have failed on me twice now, so I went with Logitech this time.

I also decided to splurge on a year’s subscription to Flickr, since it was so reasonably priced at about $25 USD. I hit the limit on the free account a while back. It’s useful as a blogger because I use it to host images I want to use in blog posts, such as the one in this post, and it doesn’t use up my bandwidth.

But I digress. Point is, when I got home from shopping, unwrapped and plugged in my shiny new mouse and by chance decided to check out my site statistics, I noticed that Google had upgraded my Analytics account to their new beta!

Analytics New Beta

The whole package is still freely available to anyone who has a Google account and a website. The graphics have been tweaked, but it’s the functionality improvements where the new Analytics really impresses. For example, the geographical breakdown now allows you to drill down from a map of the globe down to a specific US state or Canadian province.

Canada Analytics

Unsurprisingly, most of my traffic comes from Toronto and the surrounding area. Most of my US traffic originates from the most populous states: California, New York and Texas. It’s also interesting to see the browser and operating system breakdown of my visitors. Most still use Internet Explorer despite its deficiencies, but 31% using Firefox on all operating systems is above average:

Browsers and OS

The title of this post refers to the phasing-in of the new Analytics. Google announced the new version a few weeks ago but has been moving everyone over on a relaxed time frame, assumably to catch any bugs or glitches otherwise missed. So I’ve known for a while what was coming, but didn’t know when!

Google has also put together a video tour of the new features.


What is the length of the ideal blog post?

Modern Life Is Rubbish is a cool blog written by Stuart Brown that seems to feature a never-ending flow of posts on topics of interest to bloggers and technophiles alike. The latest is titled “How Long is the Ideal Blog Post?” and details some interesting and no doubt time-consuming research the blogger did into blog post length. His methodology:

Taking the Technorati Top 100 as my sample, eliminating those which aren’t in the English language, and those which aren’t identifiable as conventional blogs, I took an average word count of the 10 most recent posts on each blog.

What he found was that most of the blogs posts were between 100 and 250 words. Pretty short, in other words. Seems blog readers like short, punchy prose that gets to the point quickly and dispenses with the pleasantries. Not too surprising I guess, given the medium. Most blogs, the most popular ones anyways, are about the links elsewhere. Tell me quickly what the link is about and then gimme it so I can see for myself.

It made me wonder about my own blog. How long are my posts on average? How do I compare with the most popular blogs, with which I aspire to compete? So, I took my most recent 10 posts and calculated the average number of words, including quotes from the news stories I invariably highlight. The result? An illuminating one:

318.7 words on average, median of 302.5. Ranging from 475 on the top end to 201 on the bottom. I’m basically a little higher than the average, which probably has something to do with the quotes from the original source I’m blogging about. Most of the time I just want to bring your attention to a story related to accounting, throw my two cents in, and link it. Stuart’s take:

There’s a distinct jump in word length for some blogs – in these cases it’s usually a transition between writing for entertainment to writing for reference. With the transition comes the ability to post much longer articles, without the fear of losing interest.

So that’s what it is! I have a subconscious fear of losing your interest and I write more for entertainment than reference!


Mind maps made productive for public accountants

I’m a huge fan of visualizing things. Things like data. Data is fun, sure, but not as fun as a data visualization. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and pretty pictures have gotta be worth at least 1,001.

What’s helping me visualize data these days? Mind maps.

That’s because there are two really cool web apps that make creating and sharing mind maps a snap – and Mindmeister.

Mindmeister appears more polished at this point, but you have to sign up to use it. will have you mapping right away (before needing to register) but isn’t as slick yet. Both are pretty cool tools for visualizing some interconnected data.

Mindmeister audit mind mapI’m hoping to use these tools in the near future when I’m leading an audit planning meeting. I think this is where I could use this technology for productive purposes (rather than just messing around) and display the relationships between sections of the file and the engagement’s specific risks.

It wouldn’t take much to liven up a planning meeting, that’s for sure. I think it would encourage more participation and livelier discussion of the relevant issues, engaging everyone from the partner down to the junior staff. For juniors, it would illustrate how interconnected the issues and risks are and enable them to better understand the client and the engagement.

There’s also Mindomo, which is more feature rich than both Mindmeister and, but less Web 2.0ish. I’ve found so far that it’s easier to just get going with the first two apps, plus I think they’d be easier to use in a meeting to brainstorm. For more detailed maps, Mindomo is probably better.

But what do you think? Are mind maps an exciting new frontier for the staid business meeting?